F.C. Therapists, Counselors Discuss Mental Health Strategies for Kids Amid Pandemic

Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School counselor Matt Sowers gives parents some tips on how to spot and address mental health problems during the pandemic (Screenshot: News-Press)

Parents can do a lot to help their children cope in today’s pandemic world and, at the same time, help themselves.

That was the thrust of Tuesday night’s session during a joint PTA meeting on mental health hosted virtually by the Falls Church Education Foundation, with Sunstone Counseling on hand to lead and answer questions.

Parents can limit screen time, institute structure and let their children interact socially with gaming, for example, said Erika Davis, one of Sunstone’s counselors. “Reasonable expectations” can be set, and studying and homework can be shifted to another place besides the bedroom where “we unwind.”

In breakout sessions for elementary, middle-school and high school groups, Davis led the middle-school session. “It’s important that our kids see how we are coping, and if things don’t work, adjust,” she said. “Take a pulse and ask yourself and your kids: ‘How was today? Are you doing okay?’”

Give children opportunities to socialize. These skills may be “rusty,” but they’ll come back, “like riding a bicycle.”

Davis said parents should set boundaries for themselves and their children by turning off devices, avoiding constant email exchanges and putting off those things which can wait until tomorrow.

The health crisis hasn’t been totally negative, and some students have actually benefited from the slowdown.

“Involve your kids,” Davis said, and ask them “’What have you enjoyed by being at home?’” Packed children’s schedules may not be such good ideas.

They create stress. Parents can take a step back and analyze whether nonstop activities are worth it. Children experience a lot of self-stress and they have high expectations for themselves.

Before the breakout sessions, Davis and other Sunstone counselors outlined symptoms of anxiety and depression which parents may observe, such as sleeplessness, stomach aches, headaches, irritability and reduced interaction with others. But, some anxiety is normal, noted Sunstone’s Gina Hafez.

According to the Sunstone presentation, anxiety usually affects eight percent of children, and depression, a little over three per cent. Comparing April 2020 to April 2021, anxiety levels are up 93 percent, and depression has grown by 83 percent, per the counselors.

Depression’s symptoms may include changes in behavior, emotional outbursts, frequent irritability and/or crying, withdrawal and a sense of worthlessness.

In the break-out session, Rob Carey, the assistant principal at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, and Matt Sowers, the school’s counseling director, chimed in with school observations and recommendations for parents.

No one has to be perfect, and it’s okay to fail when, for example, children can’t find or log on to a class, Sowers said.

Parents struggle with pushing unmotivated students without going “over the edge,” Vikki Spencer Ehrlich, the PTA president at Henderson, said, but Carey noted: “It’s okay to step back and be a parent and let the school focus on academic work.”

That academic push has eased somewhat with more attention to families and the importance of the wellbeing of offspring.

Sowers said he returned to a 2013 student survey to learn why student stress levels were measured at an all-time high then and discovered a fixation on academics, studying hard for tests and making good grades.

Now, there’s a lot more emphasis on making and sustaining friendships. A new survey is coming up and he is anxious to see the results.

“You don’t have to be completely falling apart to ask for help,” Davis said. It’s better to seek aid “when a problem is small and manageable.” But if someone feels out of control, lost and helpless, Hafez noted, it may be time to seek professional help.

It’s been “a really hard winter,” Davis finished, and “I think we are all feeling pandemic fatigue,” but everyone is excited about moving on and asking “’What will life be? What can it look like?” Ask your children, too.